White House national security advisor Condoleezza Rice said Friday that she believes race can be used as a factor in making a college campus more diverse, suggesting a difference with President Bush over a key element of his position on affirmative action.
Bush strongly opposed the use of race-based admissions policies in a statement he made Wednesday and in briefs the administration filed Thursday with the Supreme Court opposing affirmative action programs at the University of Michigan.
Rice, the highest-ranking black member of the White House staff, said she supports Bush's opposition to using quotas to achieve racial diversity. But in her written statement on Friday, Rice left the door open to considering race in admissions decisions.
"I believe that while race-neutral means are preferable, it is appropriate to use race as one factor among others in achieving a diverse student body," Rice said.
As national security advisor, Rice has not spoken out on domestic policy matters. But she issued her statement to clarify her position after a story appeared Friday in the Washington Post about her discussions with Bush on the University of Michigan case, in which white students have challenged the school's admissions policy.
The story said that Rice, citing her experience as provost at Stanford University, helped convince the president "that favoring minorities was not an effective way of improving diversity on college campuses."
Angered by the characterization, according to a White House official who spoke on condition of anonymity, Rice decided to spell out her views in a written statement. She did so with Bush's encouragement, the official said.
"It's not as if she could remain silent when her views are being mischaracterized on the front page of a major daily newspaper," the aide said.
In her statement, Rice said: "When the president decided to submit an amicus brief, he asked for my view on how diversity can be best achieved on university campuses. I offered my view, drawing on my experience in academia and as provost of a major university.
"I agree with the president's position, which emphasizes the need for diversity and recognizes the continued legacy of racial prejudice, and the need to fight it. The president challenged universities to develop ways to diversify their populations fully."
But even as she emphasized her support for the Bush policy, her statement that colleges could consider prospective students' race in admission decisions signaled an apparent difference with the president.
Another White House official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, argued that Bush had been silent on the specific role race could play in admissions decisions.
"If there's a divide" between Bush and Rice, the official said, "that's the divide."
"She spoke and he didn't" the official added.
The Supreme Court ruled in an affirmative action case 25 years ago that quotas were unconstitutional. But in the landmark Bakke case of 1978, Justice Lewis F. Powell said colleges and universities are right to seek "diversity" in their student bodies and an applicant's race can be counted as a "plus" factor in admissions.
Ever since, that opinion has been cited by college officials as authorizing race-based admissions policies.
While Bush and his lawyers did not address whether race could ever be a consideration, Rice's statement endorsed that aspect of the Bakke decision.
In his Wednesday statement, Bush called diversity a laudable goal for college campuses. However, he added: "The method used by the University of Michigan to achieve this important goal is fundamentally flawed. At their core, the Michigan policies amount to a quota system that unfairly rewards or penalizes prospective students based solely on their race."
The program sets no quotas. But it awards 20 extra points to undergraduate applicants to Michigan's Ann Arbor campus who are black, Mexican American or Native American; 100 points normally merit admission.
Referring to the practice of the university's law school, in which it admitted some minority students "to meet percentage targets" while passing over other applicants with better grades, Bush said: "This means that students are being selected or rejected based primarily on the color of their skin. The motivation for such an admissions policy may be very good, but its result is discrimination, and that discrimination is wrong."
The debate this week over the role of race in determining college admissions has returned the administration to a political thicket that it would prefer to avoid.
The president's political aides have made a concerted effort to soften the Republican Party's image on racial matters. But the party has found itself on the defensive about race since December, when Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi, the incoming Senate majority leader, made comments that seemed sympathetic to past segregationist policies. The comments led to Lott resigning his leadership post.
Bush's statement Wednesday and the administration legal brief -- in stressing support for racial diversity while strongly opposing quotas -- seemed designed to appeal to moderates without angering the president's conservative supporters.
Bush has made no other public remarks on the Michigan case since his Wednesday statement.
Rice, speaking Friday in an interview with the American Urban Radio Network, reiterated her view that affirmative action was needed "if it does not lead to quotas."
"My own personal view is that there are circumstances in which it is necessary to use race as a factor among many factors in diversifying a college class," she said. "And so I've been a supporter of affirmative action that is not quota-based and that does not seek to make race the only factor, but that considers race as one of many factors."
As president, Bush relies heavily on Rice, who advised him on foreign policy during the 2000 campaign and worked on the National Security Council staff as an expert on Russia during his father's administration.
She frequently accompanies the first family to their ranch in Texas, and socializes with them.
The regard in which Bush holds Rice was suggested by his readiness to consult with her on the affirmative action case -- an area distant from her White House foreign policy portfolio, but one in which her experience at Stanford gave her an expertise the president was willing to consider.
Times staff writer David Savage contributed to this report.